Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto captures Olympic bronze with empowering free skate

Kaori Sakamoto of Team Japan in the free skate at the Beijing Olympics.
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Amidst what became an emotional spectacle Thursday at the Capital Indoor Stadium, Japanese figure skater Kaori Sakamoto kept the drama at bay as she confidently delivered a powerful performance in the women’s singles free skate to capture bronze at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Starting the final portion of the event in third place, Sakamoto followed up on her poised short program from Tuesday with an empowering message for women in her four-minute finale, set to the music of French recording artist Imany’s “No More Fight Left in Me” and “Tris” by Ellie Goulding and Junkie LX from the “Divergent” movie soundtrack.

“It’s about a woman’s strength, internal strength, that is hidden within,” Sakamoto said in November regarding the program and the Imany track, which is from the documentary, “Woman.” “I hope people can sense that through my skating.”

Sakamoto’s choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, told NBC Olympics reporter Andrea Joyce that “he wanted to create something that celebrated the power of women.”

“At first, [Richaud] said, she was afraid,” said Joyce. “[Sakamoto] thought she didn’t have a strong enough personality for it, but she’s embraced it and it’s made her stronger.”

The 21-year-old – known for her speed and strength, and without a quad or triple Axel in her repertoire – nailed all of her elements cleanly, opening with a double Axel before hitting a triple Lutz and a triple flip-double toe loop combination. Her 153.29 score marked a new personal best and briefly moved her to second before Russian Olympic Committee’s Anna Shcherbakova, 17, took over first place and fellow 17-year-old ROC skater Aleksandra Trusova moved into second.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to get another medal,” said Sakamoto, who was also part of Japan’s bronze medal win in the team event at the start of the Games (a medal that has yet to be awarded after the news that Russian Kamila Valiyeva tested positive for a banned substance). “Then I saw my name in the third place, I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s just so unbelievable.”

This marked the second Olympic appearance for Sakamoto, who finished sixth in singles and fifth in the team event in 2018. She wasn’t even in the conversation to earn one of Japan’s two spots for PyeongChang at the start of the 2017-18 season, but steady improvement and difficult content earned her two runner-up results – at Skate America and the Japanese nationals – vaulted her onto the team.

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The youngest of three sisters, Sakamoto grew up in Kobe, Japan, where she began to skate at age 4. She had seen figure skating on a popular Japanese TV drama and told her mother, “That is what I want to do.”

Sakamoto began competing at junior nationals in 2014 where she finished sixth. She won the junior national title in 2017 captured her first senior national title in 2019, adding a second in 2022 along with the Grand Prix Japan title. In two world championship appearances, she placed fifth in 2019 and sixth in 2021.

Sakamoto actually gives credit for her improved performances to the pandemic lockdown, when she turned her attention to fitness and stamina while spending six weeks away from the rink.

“I couldn’t skate for a month and a half, so I was able to work more on my strength training and maybe that has contributed to no major falls this season,” she said via Golden Skate. “I have more power than last year, so stamina is helping me in putting more effort into the expression of the music and other parts of the program.”

Off the ice, Sakamoto studies economics via remote college and keeps up her stamina with swimming and long-distance running.

“This is the culmination of four years in which I’ve felt a lot of frustration,” said Sakamoto after winning bronze. “I’m glad my hard work has been rewarded. I didn’t expect to win a medal in individual competition — the result has certainly exceeded my [expectation].”

NBC Olympics researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report. 

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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.